A New Jersey Trilogy: Chasing Amy

An American independent film's success often depends not on the quality of the film itself, but on how well its back-story (the PR tale of its creation) plays. Back-stories often focus on the minuscule budget and Herculean efforts needed to get the project made and how the film's story line relates to the filmmaker's life.The benefits for an unknown filmmaker with a good back-story is a host of publicity and a hook that will make him or her stand out from the pack. The downside is a fierce backlash when a follow-up film doesn't live up to expectations.Few people know this better than writer-director Kevin Smith. His first film, Clerks, was a $27,000 black-and-white chronicle of a convenience store clerk's day from hell (filmed in the New Jersey store where Smith himself worked).Clerks won awards and generated buzz at the 1994 Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, and then survived a well-publicized battle with the MPAA over its rating to become one of that year's most visible films.With Smith's $6 million, 1995 follow-up, Mallrats, he fell from grace with the critics and much of the independent film community."There is something to that sophomore jinx theory, especially when you've been built up tremendously on your first time around," says Smith. "There's a huge sympathy thing when you make a cheap little black-and-white movie. If it's even half good then people are just like, 'Wow, considering the budget, it's pretty damn good.'"There was a large degree of over-praise on that first flick. It should have nothing to do with the back-story, it should have nothing to do with the budget. There was a cult of personality."With Mallrats, I really wanted to make a studio movie. I didn't grow up on indie film. I wasn't raised on (Jean-Luc) Godard and Eric Rohmer. I was raised on John Hughes and John Landis. I had nothing personal to say at the time. I was like, 'I'd like to make the kind of movie that I grew up on, like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink.' So I did, and as far as I was concerned it succeeded."The critical and commercial failure of his second film was a sobering experience for Smith, but he was already at work on his next film. Chasing Amy, made for $250,000, has given the 26-year-old filmmaker a much-needed shot in the arm. Starring three veterans of Mallrats -- Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams (Smith's real-life girlfriend) -- Chasing Amy follows an unconventional romance that develops among a group of young comic book artists (see review in Big Screen).Holden (Affleck) pursues Alyssa (Adams) even after he finds out she's a lesbian. But after they get together, things get even more complicated when Alyssa's adventurous sexual history is revealed."It's funny to me when people talk about the lesbian angle," says Smith. "To me the movie really comes down to a guy who thinks he's liberal -- he's got gay friends and he listens to rap and he draws this cult underground comic book -- and then has to face the fact that he's fairly conservative." Another consistent aspect of Smith's work is comic books. He sold his massive collection to finance Clerks, eventually buying it back with the film's profits. In Chasing Amy, he uses the characters' comic books to comment on their lives and attitudes.Holden and partner, Banky (Lee), explains Smith, "made this little indie comic book that did well, and then they went on and did this comic book that appealed to the lowest common denominator."Holden, like Smith himself, goes on to make something more independent and "personal," called Chasing Amy.Smith refers to his first three films as the "New Jersey Trilogy." They are linked together partly by the appearances of Silent Bob (played by Smith) and his hyper-wordy sidekick Jay (Jason Mewes), who reflect the tone of each film. They were raucous bottom-feeders in Clerks, silly caricatures in Mallrats and, bizarrely, the voice of reason in Chasing Amy. "It was really important to return their dignity to them," says Smith. "As much dignity as two scumbag drug dealer characters can have."For his next projects, Smith is moving into new territory, first with the film Dogma, where the end of the world is brought about by a loophole in Catholic dogma.The next is a return to both comic books and Hollywood by writing the script for the big-budget Superman Lives."I certainly don't like to consider what I do artistic," concludes Smith. "If somebody else is going to call it art, that's fine. It's a job to me. It's a great job. It's great to get paid to do something that you'd probably do on your own."

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